Okay, so you’ve finished your novel. First of all, holy cow, good for you! Reward yourself! Give yourself a cookie or a pat on the back (or, if you’re especially proud, give yourself both).
You might be asking yourself: Now that I’ve finished my draft, what do I do next? You’ve got the hard part out of the way…right? Well, not exactly. You’ve heard rumors that revising and editing a draft can be just difficult, if not more so, than writing the draft itself.
Lucky for you, I’ve got five tips on how to revise and edit your novel.
1. Set It Aside
This might seem counterintuitive. When you’ve just finished your draft, and now you want to polish it, right? Well, writing a novel can be a very personal experience, and that means the writer is very close to their work. You write what you want to write because you want to write it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, “bad” first drafts are commonplace!
The thing is, it’s difficult to get a broader perspective on your story if you don’t take a step back once in a while. Try putting your draft in a drawer and letting it sit for a while. A couple weeks. Maybe a month, if you have another project to work on. Then, when your mind is clear, come back to the project with a fresh pair of eyeballs. This way, you’ll be able to see what the draft really needs.
2. Find Big Issues First
It can be tempting to do light editing first. But it’s important to note that revision should come before editing; that is, changing the big-picture story beats or characters in your novel come before fine-tuning sentences. If you have a perfectly-written scene that’s completely edited and polished but realize later during revision that you have nowhere to put it, you have potentially wasted a good chunk of time reworking a scene that never makes it into the book. It’s a good editing exercise, but you want to focus on revision before the fine-tuning.
Find plot holes and fill them in. Delete unimportant characters and bring back to life the characters who don’t belong in the grave. Change the story beats around so that everything fits. Then, when you’ve got your big-picture story in order, you can hunker down and do some good, old-fashioned editing. Your future self will thank you for making their job easier.
3. Edit with a Hard Copy
If you work primarily on the computer, then printing out your manuscript can be a drag. Especially if it’s 300+ pages. But in the end, editing a hard copy is definitely worth the trouble. For one thing, a hard copy doesn’t glow like the screen of your laptop. Editing words on paper will be much easier on your eyes.
More importantly, you’ll be able to catch flaws and mistakes in your draft easier with the physical page in front of you. And if you print one-sided, you can literally rearrange the chapters and see how they might look in different places. You can make notes in the margins with a pen or pencil, whatever suits you best. Read the draft aloud to catch inconsistencies in flow. You will see your story, and the physical words on the page, better if it’s literally sitting there, all spread out, in front of you.
4. Be Honest with Yourself
I don’t mean, “Be mean to yourself.” But do be hard on yourself. Drafting is the process that’s fun and imaginative. It’s your place to be creative and have a good time, to experiment, and to delve into the deepest recesses of your imagination.
But during the revision stage, you must be honest with yourself. Recognize that some pieces just don’t fit. Some plotlines you included in the draft aren’t strong enough to make it to the final copy. Similarly, during the editing stage, be tough on your prose when it comes to mistakes. You want to polish this novel until it shines. That means that every little detail must serve a purpose.
Don’t go overboard or become too stressed about revising and editing! There’s no need to freak out over a single sentence for hours on end. Just make sure you recognize that not everything about your first draft is perfect. As soon as you realize that your material can be even better, you’ll know just what to do to make it happen.
5. Edit Chapters Out of Order
This last tip actually takes me back to my music days. When learning a new piano piece, I l learned it from start to finish for the first few days. Then, when I memorized a piece, I placed different “memory stations” throughout the song so that if, during a performance, I forgot where I was, there was always someplace to go back to and continue playing like nothing happened. And one of the best techniques to memorize a piece of music is to play through these memory stations…back to front.
Try editing your novel from the ending to the beginning. This gives you a new perspective and will help you better examine your pacing to see if it works or if it’s off. You might even discover a character arc or plot thread that appears midway through, which lets you know that you forgot to tie something into a neat little bow. It’s a useful challenge and a fun exercise, all rolled into one!
Keep in mind that, while these tips work for me and many other writers, each person’s process is different. If you find that you edit better with the story fresh in your mind, don’t worry about setting it aside; just dig into it! If you like to edit from the first chapter to the last, go for it! There is no right way, only your way.